What next for Nigeria?

The Marina on Lagos Island in Nigeria's capital: the developed façade of a society undergoing profound changeThe Marina on Lagos Island in Nigeria's capital: the developed façade of a society undergoing profound change (Source: Akudi Tseja)

Radios across Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city with a staggering 21 million people, are alive with fiery political debate, catchy political jingles and celebrity endorsements. Election fever has hit the city, and the entire country; albeit over a longer period than first imagined. The election was actually due to take place under the auspices of Saint Valentine, on 14 February 2015, but has been postponed apparently because of the security threat posed by Boko Haram, the fierce Islamist group seizing control of large swathes of northern Nigeria. Instead, Nigerians (as well as Ghanaians, Cameroonians and the international community) are on the edge of their seats as they await the delayed election on 28 March, in the hope that Nigerian democracy itself has not been ‘postponed’.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a staggering 175 million people, comprising more than 250 ethnic and linguistic groups. By 2050, the United Nations is predicting that the population will be greater than the USA and will be the world’s third most populous country by the end of the century. The country has a burgeoning internal market and, as the ‘Giant of Africa’, is tipped to become one of the biggest economies in the world over the next fifty years. It is the USA’s largest trading partner in Sub-Saharan Africa and, according to Citigroup, will achieve the highest average GDP growth in the world between 2010 and 2050.

Northern Nigeria is dominated by Muslims, who make up 50% of the total population, and the oil-rich south by Christians, who represent 40% of the population (the final 10% is represented by people with indigenous beliefs). Some groups sit across the religious fault-line, such as the Yoruba, half of whom are Christian and the other half Muslim. Oil flows through the pipes in southern Nigeria, particularly port towns such as Lagos, and accounts for 80% of government revenue, but is failing to enrich the north at the same rate. The 19 northern states collect approximately half as much federal reserve per capita as their counterparts in the Niger Delta, creating considerable disparity between two already divided religious communities. At a national level, northern politicians have failed to control the federal government for a single four-year term since 1999, which has created a greater sense of marginalisation and alienation.

In Lagos, the 23 Nigerian billionaires boast multiple Porsches, whereas the majority of Northern Nigerians live in crushing poverty. Around 80% of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population. Poverty is not just restricted to the north: life expectancy across the country is desperately low, at 52 years for men and 53 years for women. Oil wealth is not enriching the entire population, instability and rebel action are rife, and democracy is on shaky ground with the delay of the election. So what is next for Nigeria?

A democracy in limbo

The shock postponement of the general election on 7 February 2015 was announced just one week before it was due to take place. The Independent National Election Commission (INEC) cited security concerns and the rising threat of Boko Haram in the north, which would have prevented security forces from ensuring a safe election. The militant Islamic group in the north, operating for the past five years, will not be deterred or defeated before the election, and critics claim that the president of the chairman of the INEC has been coerced into delaying the election to allow more time for the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to gain support, particularly through a big push to end the insurgency in the north-east. Nigeria has a harrowing past of military coups, civil war in the 1960s, the expulsion of more than one million foreigners in 1983 and corrupt dictators, with General Sani Abacha accused of stealing $3bn (£2bn) from the state in five years. Yet, since 1999, the country has witnessed the longest period of peaceful civilian rule in its history. Elections were postponed twice before, in 2011, but then considered to be very successful under the watchful eye of international observers. MTV Africa launched its own discussion of the election in ‘Choose or Lose’ Roundtable; this time, youths are more engaged in politics through social media. The President himself made an appearance on the popular television programme, with viewers able to engage through Facebook and Twitter.

Nigeria’s current President, the colourful Goodluck Jonathan, has a mixed record in office. The administration has made strides in Nigeria’s agricultural and energy sectors, but the economy has lagged in other areas and is highly dependent on oil production. With the upcoming election and halving of the oil price to $55 (£36) per barrel since June, construction in Nigeria is grinding to a halt and up to a third of jobs have been cut since a year ago. International observers have praised the President’s role in containing the Ebola virus; 21 cases of the virus were reported in the middle of 2014, mostly in Lagos, however, by October of the same year, Nigeria was declared Ebola-free, and the risk of return (and potential epidemic) is low. Jonathan has been most criticised in his failure to repel the advance of Boko Haram, particularly following the kidnap of 240 school girls in July last year, and his failure to secure their return, despite the pressure of social media campaigns in the West. Jonathan has also largely failed to implement the radical ‘Vision 2020′ programme, aimed at attracting higher levels of foreign investment through a sound financial system, clamping down on corruption and investing in transport infrastructure, health and education. Literacy remains stubbornly low, at 61% (compared to 94% in South Africa), and almost 10 million school-aged children are not in education, the highest in any country across the world, with the enrolment rate at only 47% for secondary education. While a charismatic and energetic President is certainly a benefit, it looks unlikely that Jonathan will see another turn in office.

Nigeria's current President, Goodluck Jonathan. This year's election is expected to be the closest for over 20 years.

Nigeria’s current President, Goodluck Jonathan. This year’s election is expected to be the closest for over 20 years (Source: The Commonwealth)

Opposing Jonathan is Muhammadu Buhari, who is in some senses his polar opposite. A Muslim from the northern part of the country, and with an increasingly cohesive party behind him (the All Progressive Congress, formed from the merger of three ethnically and regionally based parties), Buhari represents a more hopeful alternative for Nigeria. Jonathan’s party has been criticised across the political spectrum for breaking the rule of rotation between Christian and Muslim governors. To allay fears of domination, most Nigerian politicians have ‘zoning’ power rotation arrangements where parties agree that key offices and candidates should be produced by designated regions for a certain number of years. Buhari, who ran the military government after a 1983 coup, has a squeaky-clean record on corruption and is determined to defeat the Boko Haram threat in the north. He has widely, and popularly, condemned the al-Qaeda linked organisation as “bigots masquerading as Muslims”, and offers a more genuine political and ideological force for defeating the insurgents, preaching moderate Islamic values, as well as military will. Earlier this month, Boko Haram pledged their allegiance to ISIS, yet Buhari seeks a political and economic resolution to this military threat. Despite this, Christians in the south of the country fear the spread of Sharia Law from the north, and Buhari as President may represent for some the increasing dominance of Islam. Winning a majority in the first round of elections requires both more than 50% of the national vote and at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states; in the absence of an out-right winner, a run-off election must be held within seven days. Given Nigeria’s fragmented security system, a second election is unlikely to take place, making this the most likely place where democracy (or at least the constitution) will be “abridged”, at risk of continuous constitutional discussion and an increasingly north-south polarised country.

The patchwork quilt of communities in Nigeria complicates the electoral process: parties based on ethnicity and region are accused of prioritising their own communities at the expense of others’. The current government under Goodluck Jonathan represents mainly Southern and Christian communities, but has various factions, including both religious communities and traditional rulers, both impeding radical change and preventing the dominance of one group for lack of a single power base. The election will represent a ‘shuffling of the cards’ as either the PDP or the APC bring their clientele to power. This effort at power-sharing and preventing either the north or south from dominating the government has run into trouble over recent years, with Jonathan himself running for president despite it being the ‘turn’ of a northerner in Yaradua. This example of tailored democracy, fitted to meet the diverse and changing nature of Nigerian society, is at risk of destruction, to the peril of both the north and the south.

Boko Haram – a rising threat

The threat posed by al Qaeda’s partner in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, is mounting. Ties between the two terrorist groups have strengthened in recent years: a Boko Haram spokesman claimed in January 2012 that they had met senior al-Qaeda figures in Saudi Arabia, and the group has received significant funds from al-Qaeda. Despite efforts to “go it alone”, Nigeria is now allowing troops from the African Union (AU) to defend against the Islamic insurgency in the north. So far, 8,700 troops from Cameroon, Chad and Benin are aiding the operation in the area, and have achieved some success. The mission is a great challenge, however. President Jonathan’s lack of action in the north has meant that over 20,000 square miles of land is under Boko Haram’s control. An area the size of Belgium, it includes the fishing town of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, and a land mass with a total population exceeding 1.7 million people. The Nigerian Army lacks the training and  resources to defeat the rebels, and the lack of political foresight of the threat means that forces are rapidly playing catch-up. A ten-year-old girl became the most recent suicide bomber in north-eastern Nigeria, highlighting the chilling and brutal nature of the organisation. In July last year, more than 240 school girls were abducted in Chibok; almost a year later, the children have still not been found. Opposition leader Buhari claimed at a Chatham House lecture that “the government’s priority is to rig elections, not to secure the country”. The governor of Borno, the state most affected by the insurgency, has stated that the Islamists are much better armed than the soldiers. The Nigerian army is losing much of its $4bn (£2.6bn) budget to corruption, preventing it from successfully recapturing the north and restoring stability. In the north-east, army members are complaining that commanders have shaved off up to 50% of funding, leaving them without sleeping bags and having to scavenge for firewood to cook.

Despite the brutality of Boko Haram, the 14 local government districts lost to the insurgency seem to have gained some support from local people. Neglect of non-oil industries is at the centre of the problem; and the dramatic reduction in oil prices is leading to significant inflation that is damaging the economy. Two-thirds of the population are living on less than $1 per day, the poverty line often used by the United Nations, and unemployment levels reached 24% in 2011, 37% for those aged between 15 and 24 years old. In the absence of charisma, eloquence or optimistic youth, the 72 year-old Buhari represents a true threat to Boko Haram; representing a peaceful, moderate and electable alternative to Islamic fundamentalism. Maintaining security for both religions and defeating Boko Haram through military force will be key tasks of any government in power following the election.

An economy in crisis

The Nigerian economy has suffered a battering in recent months, with the sharp decline in global oil prices.  The price of Brent Crude oil averaged $77.34 a barrel for the first quarter of this year, which represents a decrease of $32 since the first quarter of 2013. Despite an impressive growth rate of 7%, making it one of the fast-growing economies in the continent, the economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas which is often extracted at source and exported, and wealth is concentrated in small port towns. Both President Jonathan and his opponent are in favour of diversification of the economy: currently the oil and gas industries comprise 80% of total tax receipts. The recent decline in oil prices has depleted government reserves and is stretching the already tight financial conditions. Jonathan has invested heavily in the agricultural and oil and gas sectors, but other industries have been sidelined. Corruption and infrastructure are key obstacles to the development of other industries, such as manufacturing, and Nigeria is ranked a measly 137 out of 183 economies in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business Report’. In Kano, a town in the north famous for its high fashion, the price of dresses has increased rapidly, as the Naira (Nigeria’s currency) loses value due to the oil crisis. A bag that was previously being sold at 8,000 Naira (£26) is now being sold at 12,000 Naira (£40). Dependency on the industry means Nigerians are always on a rollercoaster of high and low prices.

The next steps for the Nigerian economy will most certainly include improvements to education and healthcare. The low literacy rate could have a serious impact on the country’s industrialisation plans. Only 25% of Nigerian candidates for the West African Examination Council achieved credits in English language, mathematics and at least three other subjects, which is the minimum requirement for entry into tertiary education. In fact, the skilled labour pool has declined over the past decade as vocational and university educational standards have fallen due to poor funding and long university strikes. Educated Nigerians have left for employment in South Africa, the USA or the UK, with the 15,000 Nigerians in UK universities in 2012, a figure expected to double by 2024. The majority of skilled employees in the banking and insurance sectors in Nigeria received an education from international universities. The next government faces a chronically under-funded education system, fraught with corruption and poor labour relations. Nigeria has the highest number of children not in school in the world, at 8.7 million. For Nigeria to become a high-income country, as outlined in its “Vision 2020”, investment in education will be key.

Alongside poor educational investment, healthcare will continue to be a serious problem over the next decade. Health spending has increased in the National Strategic Health Development (HSHD) plan, but health outcomes remain poor. In 2011, the UN Human Development Report ranked Nigeria 156 out of 187 countries, and infant mortality is surprisingly high at 75 deaths per 1,000 live births, placing it in the ten worst countries for infant mortality. The rate of HIV prevalence is deceptively low at 3.6%, given that the size of Nigeria’s population means the country has the second largest absolute number of people with the virus after South Africa. Investment in the healthcare sector and improvements in rural infrastructure should be a key priority in the coming years.

What is the world doing?

Nigeria is host to a range of international development organisations, including the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), the United Nations (UN), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). International organisations played a key role in the successful management of the 2011 elections, including an improvement in the number of people registered to vote. USAID is playing an important role in governance, in particular improving the capacity of government agencies to hold the government to account and engage with civil society by, for example, training government officials to identify corruption and giving civil servants advice on good governance. Key problems remain, however, with the lack of accountability of the government and frequent human rights violations. In 2014, Amnesty International noted deeply entrenched human rights problems, such as extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrest by the police and security services. Hundreds of testimonies have reported the institutionalised use of torture chambers and abuse by the military, despite the outlaw of torture in the constitution.

The International Development community has committed to an important role in the 2015 elections. UKAID has dedicated £38 million to ‘Deepening Democracy’ in Nigeria, particularly through the election but also improving the National Assembly’s role and engaging with women, young people and minorities. The challenge over the next few years will be to hold the government to account and reduce the money lost to corruption, particularly through training against corruption for civil servants and forensic accountants. UKAID claims that “a succession of governments…have been insulated from the electorate” and both civil society organisations and the National Assembly have lacked the ability to hold the government to account. The focus for the next few years for international development should be not only to ensure the 2015 election takes place, but also that democracy is inclusive, and that governance ensures a greater spread of wealth to non-oil rich regions.

So – what next?

Nigeria has the potential to be a shining light in Africa. The colourful clothing and popular Nollywood movies (first Hollywood, then Bombay’s Bollywood, and now Nigeria’s Nollywood) are signs that Nigeria is shining – but not as brightly as it could, and should, as the ‘Giant of Africa’. The postponement of the election is worrying. But it has happened before – in 2011 the election was postponed twice before taking place to international praise. President Jonathan has claimed that the Boko Haram situation has meant that security cannot be guaranteed for the election; with troops from the African Union, this reason (or excuse) is less valid, and elections will be taking place at the end of March.

The Nigerian economy is in need of investment – the golden opportunity provided by the discovery of oil could be used to benefit the economy, invest in infrastructure, education and health, and also improve the manufacturing and finance sectors. Developing countries are often hit by the ‘paradox of plenty’, being rich in resources but lacking in government structures for sustainable and environmentally-friendly use of these assets. The challenges faced by the country are deep. Corruption is rife and seen as part of the culture, particularly in politics. Democracy and governance are in need of greater accountability and input from civil society. But there is hope. The international development community is playing a key role in the country, but internal pressures and the threat of Boko Haram may actually prove to Nigerians, both north and south, that democracy and reform are vital to the future success and wealth of the country. The international development community should focus on improving governance, reducing corruption and building a tailored democracy to suit Nigeria’s particular demographic mix. Nigeria has a long way to go; its first steps on the path to economic development are crucial, and resolving north-south tensions will be essential to a successful and stable democracy.